They may seem like a throwback to yesteryear, vintage retro notebooks all brown and burnt in a corner somewhere.  Field notes are the main tool of the ethnographer, the archeologist, the utility worker, the geo-cache-er, and the hiker.  Others too, but are field notes designed to record or observe?  And when using these artistically, such as in a sketchbook, visual diary, or art journal, how can we best capitalize to grow our art practices?  I like to view the field notes as annotated sketchbooks, recordings with detailed information or narratives that would help a future me remember a present experience.  For example, this article by Harvard University Press gives us a slideshow of examples of various field notes styles, a viable option in addition to or in lieu of technological tools.

The University of Southern California suggests this outline below as a guide, which I like very much.  Sometimes, you just have to write it down somehow and I love the spirit of the impulse and focus captured in these examples.

The ways in which we take notes during an observational study is very much a personal decision developed over time as we become more experienced in observing. However, all field notes generally consist of two parts:

  1. Descriptive information, in which you attempt to accurately document factual data [e.g., date and time] and the settings, actions, behaviors, and conversations that you observe; and,
  2. Reflective information, in which you record your thoughts, ideas, questions, and concerns as you are conducting the observation.

Field notes should be fleshed out as soon as possible after an observation is completed. Your initial notes may be recorded in cryptic form and, unless additional detail is added as soon as possible after the observation, important facts and opportunities for fully interpreting the data may be lost.

Characteristics of Field Notes

  • Be accurate. You only get one chance to observe a particular moment in time so, before you conduct your observations, practice taking notes in a setting that is similar to your observation site in regards to number of people, the environment, and social dynamics. This will help you develop your own style of transcribing observations quickly and accurately.
  • Be organized. Taking accurate notes while you are actively observing can be difficult. It is therefore important that you plan ahead how you will document your observation study [e.g., strictly chronologically or according to specific prompts]. Notes that are disorganized will make it more difficult for you to interpret the data.
  • Be descriptive. Use descriptive words to document what you observe. For example, instead of noting that a classroom appears “comfortable,” state that the classroom includes soft lighting and cushioned chairs that can be moved around by the study participants. Being descriptive means supplying yourself with enough factual evidence that you don’t end up making assumptions about what you meant when you write the final report.
  • Focus on the research problem. Since it’s impossible to document everything you observe, include the greatest detail about aspects of the research problem and the theoretical constructs underpinning your research; avoid cluttering your notes with irrelevant information. For example, if the purpose of your study is to observe the discursive interactions between nursing home staff and the family members of residents, then it would only be necessary to document the setting in detail if it in some way directly influenced those interactions [e.g., there is a private room available for discussions between staff and family members].
  • Record insights and thoughts. As you observe, be thinking about the underlying meaning of what you observe and record your thoughts and ideas accordingly. This will help if you to ask questions or seek clarification from participants after the observation. To avoid any confusion, subsequent comments from participants should be included in a separate, reflective part of your field notes and not merged with the descriptive notes.

General Guidelines for the Descriptive Content

  • Describe the physical setting.
  • Describe the social environment and the way in which participants interacted within the setting. This may include patterns of interactions, frequency of interactions, direction of communication patterns [including non-verbal communication], and patterns of specific behavioral events, such as, conflicts, decision-making, or collaboration.
  • Describe the participants and their roles in the setting.
  • Describe, as best you can, the meaning of what was observed from the perspectives of the participants.
  • Record exact quotes or close approximations of comments that relate directly to the purpose of the study.
  • Describe any impact you might have had on the situation you observed [important!].

General Guidelines for the Reflective Content

  • Note ideas, impressions, thoughts, and/or any criticisms you have about what you observed.
  • Include any unanswered questions or concerns that have arisen from analyzing the observation data.
  • Clarify points and/or correct mistakes and misunderstandings in other parts of field notes.
  • Include insights about what you have observed and speculate as to why you believe specific phenomenon occurred.
  • Record any thoughts that you may have regarding any future observations.

NOTE:  Analysis of your field notes should occur as they are being written and while you are conducting your observations. This is important for at least two reasons. First, preliminary analysis fosters self-reflection, and self-reflection is crucial for understanding and meaning-making in any research study. Second, preliminary analysis reveals emergent themes. Identifying emergent themes while observing allows you to shift your attention in ways that can foster a more developed investigation.

Shauna Lee Lange, Peace River Happy Tree, watercolor


The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offers these suggestions.

When observing a culture, setting, or social sitution, field notes are created by the researcher to remember and record the behaviors, activities, events and other features of the setting being observed.

Field notes are meant to be read by the researcher to produce meaning and an understanding of the culture, social situation or phenomenon being studied.

There are several important steps to consider when preparing field notes:

  • A regular time and place should be set aside for writing field notes.  Generally, field notes should be written as soon after observation as possible.
  • All field notes should contain the date, time, location and details of the main informants.  This should be done in a consistent location.
  • The research question and study design should provide some theoretical criteria to decide what to record, and when, where and how to record field notes
  • Field notes should be prepared so that the order of them can be rearranged and manipulated so that notes can be separated from any particular category in which the researcher has recorded observation
  • During fieldwork, the research must work out his or her relationship to the field, to the members of the setting being observed and to one own’s way of seeing

The Process of Creating Fieldnotes

  • Jottings or scratch notes – the observer jots down a few words or short sentences that will help them recall something they observed, something that someone said or something that happened.  Jottings or scratch notes are generally written in the field.
  • Field notes are prepared – jottings are translated into field notes.  The jottings are used to faciliate the observer’s memory of the session in the field.  In preparing his or her field notes, the researcher provides a detailed, coherent description of what he or she observed
  • Analysis of notes occurs as notes are being prepared and while the researcher is still in the field.  This is important for at least two reasons:
    • This preliminary analysis fosters self-reflection, and self-reflection is crucial for understanding and meaning-making
    •  Preliminary analysis reveals emergent themes.  Identifying emergent themes while still in the field allows the researcher to shift his or her attention in ways that can foster a more developed investigation of emerging themes

In today’s contemporary culture we have Field Notes brand which are quickly rivaling Moleskine notebooks, you’re likely to come up to many search results selling the Field Notes product.  Personally, I’m finding more success for suggestions, layouts, items to record, and formats along with artistic interpretation on the hundreds of Pinterest boards on the subject.  Be sure to also check nature art, nature writing, art & nature journals, sketchbooks, visual diaries, and a host of other key words to give yourself the broadest overview.  Another great way to develop your field notes is to participate in community plein air outings – with painters and sketchers in naturally beautiful settings, these outings will provide lots of opportunities to translate the natural world into art, creative growth, imagination, and idea generation.

We are now offering a Field Notes art workshop and Trail Map Journey Guide to help you learn to unplug from technology and to receive the healing benefits of nature.  It’ll grow your soul and your art, and your natural being.  Look here for more information soon.

the art evangelist explores and expands the intersections of art, nature, faith, spirituality, creativity, culture, and community.  How can we help you grow more today?  941.875.5190

Credit for USC Field Note Suggestions:  Emerson, Robert M. et al. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011; Ethnography, Observational Research, and Narrative Inquiry. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Pace, Tonio. Writing Field Reports. Scribd Online Library; Pyrczak, Fred and Randall R. Bruce. Writing Empirical Research Reports: A Basic Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. 5th ed. Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing, 2005; Report Writing. UniLearning. University of Wollongong, Australia; Wolfinger, Nicholas H. “On Writing Fieldnotes: Collection Strategies and Background Expectancies.” Qualitative Research 2 (April 2002): 85-95; Writing Reports. Anonymous. The Higher Education Academy.

Credit for RWJ Foundation Suggestions: Burgess, RG. (1991). “Keeping field notes” (pp. 191-194).  In RG Burgess (Ed.) Field Research: A sourcebook and Field Manual. London: Routledge; J. Clifford & GE Marcus (Eds.) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politicals of Ethnography. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press; Sanjek, R. (1990). “A vocabulary for fieldnotes” (pp. 92-121) In R. Sanjek (Ed.) Fieldnotes: The Making of Anthropology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; Van Maanen, J. (1988). Tales of the field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Webb, B. (1991). “The art of note-taking.” (pp. 195-199).  In RG Burgess (Ed.) Field Research: A sourcebook and Field Manual. London: Routledge.


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